Final examination

As the project is winding down, I would like to use this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on the project, my blog and outcomes overall. This has been a long year and in relation to this module, I have learnt a lot, both about the games industry and my own work habits/preferences.

First and foremost, what I have learned from this project has been both useful and informative. By questioning both what I know about art styles (Historic and contemporary) and how I interpret them, I have been able to discover more about their effective use in both as a games identity and as a gameplay mechanic. By going back and playing a number of older games that I remember having interesting visual styles, I have been able to discover a number of old methods that see far less use in the modern industry.

As far as my blog is concerned, the one big problem I have had is my writing style. Whilst I have attempted to write with a more informal attitude, I have found this difficult due to many personal reasons and my interest in the matter leads me to write in a way similar to my Essay writing style. Occasionally I believe I was able to work past it, but these rare occasions just made my overall writing feel inconsistent in some areas.

As for my outcomes, I feel as if they have allowed me to gain a far better understanding of the visual side of the games industry. Seeing how long term series manage to innovate in terms of their art style really taught me more about how visual direction is approached in development. Seeing games develop with vastly different art styles remain immediately recognizable made me seriously reconsider what I classified as an “Art style”.

Whilst I have not covered everything that I wanted with this project, I have gained valuable insight into the visual side of the games industry. In my future work, I believe I will be able to take this knowledge and work better with art teams. Whilst I intend to act with a design focus, being able to understand more what is desirable in terms of visuals to fit with my designs will be an invaluable skill to have. I have found this project both enjoyable and productive and am glad to have spent the time that I have on it.

Graphics VS art style

Earlier on in the project, I had a misconception that Graphics was a term very closely tied to a game’s art style. As I have looked more into the matter, I have realised that, whilst graphics have a had a large impact on how art styles have been developed over the years, art styles have often been created regardless of the technology available at the time.

A good way of being able to tell this is by looking at the development of the Character driven games (Sonic, Mario, Rare games ECT). Initially, these games were created when graphics were far more limited (NES, N64 ect) which limited how expressive their animations could be and how detailed their assets could be. As technology has increased, these games have, for the most part (Barring spin off’s) kept a very similar and identifiable art style that has only increased in quality with technology’s advancement. Another good example of this would be to compare the upcoming “Yooka Laylee” to its primary inspiration “Banjo Kazoie” on the N64. Both are heavily focused on characters and bright vibrant worlds and the only real difference in their art style is the quality of the assets on display.

With the dawn of VR and advanced graphics processing technology, video game graphics are likely to constantly increase (although at varying speeds) as time goes on. However, whilst new avenues might allow for art style trends to develop, often times they will not develop due to technology’s development rather based on how people interact with it.

Painting-Like art styles

Some games attempt to create art styles that take influences from movements in art history. If they fit with the theme/timeline the game is set in, it can create a very appealing art style. These are usually identifiable by a heavy colour focus, stylised textures/models that showcase brush strokes or paint like effects. Another way of handling this is to take a popularised art movement and create a game that clearly invokes this. One key example of this comes to mind and it was the PS2 game “Okami”.

Okami uses a style of Japanese painting called “Sumi-e” as inspiration for its heavily stylised visuals and mechanics. Every object in the game has an outline that varys in thickness depending on distance to camera and its curvature in a way that simulates brush strokes. This, combined with its traditional colours and imagery, creates a style that immediately feels its heritage and pleases the eye. In motion, the brush stroke visuals also add an element of dynamism to all of the animations.

There are other examples of this such as “The bridge” designing both its mechanics and visual style around the works of M.C Escher and “Cuphead” Drawing its inspiration from the early days of commercial animation. By choosing a pre-existing art style, if chosen where appropriate, can both strengthen your games visuals and help elements of the design.

Tone and Theme

From what I have observed, Videogames either choose their theme due to the genre/license they are creating for or as the basis for the rest of the game (Genre/Visuals ECT). Regardless of which, art styles are often created to fit the theme are usually created in styles that support them. This sounds like an obvious statement to me but I have recently noticed a few different games that have chosen art styles that feel diametrically opposed to their themes and yet, due to the skill of their implementation, work incredibly well. I wanted to quickly cover why I thought this was and illustrate how art styles effect and are effect by theme and tone.

One thing I have noticed that the majority of themes fit most art styles with very few exceptions. A few of the exceptions I have found include :

  • Character adventures (Banjo Kazoie, Conkers, Yooka Laylee ECT)

    I find that any style attempting to sell itself on a cartoonish feel (or at least on the strength of visually distinct and animated characters) do not particularly work well with highly detailed realistic art styles. Whilst its possible to have levity in more realistic styles, I find the expressiveness needed to properly portray the cartoon like natures of the characters vasty removes from the realistic style. A good compromised between detail and cartoon like style has been reached in the past with games such as “Rachet and clank”, but with too much of a focus on reality, I would find the styles at ends.

  • Horror

    This one particularly goes without saying, but horror does relatively poorly with overly vibrant, emotive styles unless they are carefully designed. The feeling of fear that fans of these games enjoy needs a few key elements such as lighting, sound and mechanics to all be in support of this and vibrant, cartoon-like settings usually work to put the player at ease. This expectation however can be played on to great effect if that is the intention. By subverting the players expectations, the horror and feeling of dread can either have greater effect by surprising the player or slowly creep in on the art style, leading the player to feel ill at ease and slowly put them on edge.

One thing I have noticed is that the majority of art styles can also set any tone for the gameplay that is required of them. I noticed this in particular when looking at “The binding of Isaac”. The game uses a cartoon-like art style with expressive characters and a vibrant colour pallet (That admittedly darkens as the game continues). Despite this, the game uses gore and depressing visuals to great effect, creating a very harsh and negative environment despite aforementioned art style. Looking at Binding of Isaac without any gore on the screen and one would easily be forgiven for expecting a far lighter hearted game than is delivered and the betrayal of expectations adds weight to the eventual underplayed narrative that makes the whole experience upsetting and emotional (In a way that provides satisfaction from a story well told).

Art styles can seriously effect a games identity, but with careful implementation, do not have to be limited by genre/narrative choices.

Hand drawn, Frame by Frame

One art style I find particularly appealing is any style that uses hand drawn, frame by frame animations. These are often used in 2D games such as those in the fighting and platforming genres although they have also found use in some 3D games (Isometric games in particular). One game in particular that captures this perfectly in my mind is “Skullgirls”.

Skullgirls uses a hand drawn art style that focus on extremely expressive animations and unique character and environment design. Every character and area had an interesting twist and was animated with a high level of detail despite the small 0.1 – 0.75 second windows the majority of the animations take place in due to the way fighting games have to operate. Taking a look at the sprite sheets or running the game in slow motion lets you truly appreciate the minutia that has gone into the Art direction of the game and whilst these animations are exceptionally fast, it is usually possible to see them for what they are and the extra detail that went into their creation is justified. Skullgirls was trying to create a world with a good sense of levity and a small amount of seriousness mixed in and its hand drawn, cartoon inspired art style fit this perfectly.

Another good example of this style is “Dont starve”, which is a survival game with a heavily “Tim burton” style of grim cartoon-like visuals. Despite its overly expressive and cartoon like art style (Two elements that usually distance the viewer from immersion and therefore any real sense of danger that horror rely on), the game manages to create real moments of tension and borderline fear thanks to a strong use of lighting, sound design and small but effective animations (Shadows of hands grabbing at the edge of the darkness and small glowing eyes occasionally appearing for a few moments). Its expressive visual style helps offset the otherwise oppressive nature of the world, giving the player a break in-between tense and horror rich moments.

The two examples I have given are both trying to achieve something quite different and through the use of hand drawn styles have both managed them very effectively. The benefits to the style (Expressive animations, Unique character and world design if done correctly) can work well for many games and if created with expertise can adapt to any tone or theme required.

NOTE –

Analysing tone and theme in relation to art styles might be a good idea

Art style as a Design device

The majority of cues in video gaming come from either audio or visual elements in the environment. Many games simply use UI prompts to direct player movement and behaviour which is straightforward and ensures clarity of requirements for the player to progress. Other games use less UI and instead rely on more subtle cues using the games art style as a tool for player direction. This carries risks but if done correctly and effectively can more naturally guide a player and improve the user experience vastly.

As previously mentioned, a prime example of this in action is “Journey” for the PS3/PS4. Through the use of subtle visual cues such as lighting emphasis placement, colour shifts and the use of empty space (With a daisy chain of objects in the visible distance leading in the correct direction), the player never feels lost despite no UI and vast open spaces more often than not. The game also uses a less subtle method of player direction within the art style in the form of a large environmental object with a lighting focus (The mountain in the distance).

Other games have also managed this kind of direction well. “Shadow of the colossus” provides a large open world and tasks the player with tracking down and slaying several giant beings. The hero has a sword that when raised points a large beam of light toward the location of the next colossus in line. This provides the player clear direction but also fits the game as part of the art style, with no UI prompts that feel exterior to the game’s world. When fighting the Colossuses, the player has to climb each one and find glowing icons that are weak spots to attack. These areas are not immediately obvious when climbing (Although they are visible from the ground in most cases) but once again the player can point their sword in the air and it will lead them towards the weak spots. The game uses very minimal UI elements which vastly strengthens the games visual appeal.

If designed correctly, Art style can be a powerful design tool that can guide a player naturally through an experience and also give them a chance to feel as if their advancement is natural and free flowing, regardless of the amount of railroading on the designers part.

Classifying Art style Genres

One thing I have come to understand during my research, is that there is no real categorization system for Art directions in video gaming. Strictly speaking, this seems to be a good thing as it is not really what games are sold on and being able to pigeon-hole art in such a way would suggests either saturation or lack of variety. I have found, after asking a number of my friends that the default way people seem to refer to games is with either some of the blanket terms I have used previously (2D, 3D, Realistic, Cel shaded, Pixel ECT) or by comparing them to other, visually similar games.

Whilst I do not think it is possible to properly describe art styles in 1-3 chunks in a way that game genres are described, I believe small sentences would suffice in this area. To test this theory out, I picked a number of my favourite art styles in video games off of the top of my head and attempted to describe them without referring to other, similar games.

  • Bioshock

    A grim underwater metropolis with heavy Art Deco stylings

  • Deus ex : Human Revolution

    Futuristic Cyberpunk with sleek modern stylings and a strong yellow focus colour

  • Splatoon

    Vibrant, Colourfull and cartoonish Art design with a mix of qwirky characters and a trendy, hip hop style.

  • The wolf among us

    Cell shaded noir with heavy comic book stylings.

  • Mad World

    Black and white with a heavy emphasis on tonal shifts and blood as emphasis

  • Guilty Gear XRD

    Cell shaded anime stylings with traditional animation techniques for dynamic animations

  • Shadow of the colossus

    Epic fantasy art with a grandiose sense of scale

  • Bloodborne

    Heavy gothic influences with complex religious architecture (Grand cathedrals and the like)

Describing a game using a sentence is clearly possible, but as far as offering a quick impression of a games visual style, simply showing a picture would be far easier. Showing gameplay style is far harder with pictures than visual style, so genre descriptors work well for gameplay but images are a far better method. In truth, upon finishing this, I have realised this is a problem that comes from semantics rather than any real issues or discoveries, which is unfortunate.